Federal directives raise management, budget, oversight questions at MBTA

The Federal Transit Administration’s crackdown on safety issues at the MBTA is raising questions about the transit agency’s management, its budget, and its oversight going forward.

On Wednesday, the FTA ordered the MBTA to address a series of safety issues that couldn’t wait until the federal agency’s formal review is completed later this summer. 

The issues deal with maintenance; staffing levels in the operations control center; general operating procedures, particularly in rail yards; compliance with regular safety recertifications; and oversight by the Department of Public Utilities. 

All of the items on the FTA’s checklist are fairly basic, particularly the recertifications, which are intended to make sure that staff periodically get a refresher on safety protocols.  

The problem was most severe on the Green Line, which has had a high number of “safety events” lately. Overall, 221 Green Line operators (41 percent of the total), 25 inspectors (26 percent), eight supervisors (50 percent), and 12 yard masters (100 percent) were deemed late for annual recertifications, according to the FTA. 

The lapsed certifications raise questions about T management’s attention to safety, despite all the claims that safety is the agency’s top priority. The fact that the T responded to the FTA’s directives by saying it would have all employees recertified this week suggests the authority isn’t paying attention to even the most basic issues.

The FTA’s directives never address the budget implications of the recommendations, but some of them could increase costs significantly. The maintenance directive for example, mentions the T spends $2 billion a year on capital initiatives and only $70 million on maintenance. The directive said the T lacks the resources and access to track needed to conduct a “proactive inspection and maintenance program.”

James Aloisi, a TransitMatters board member and former secretary of transportation, said many of the directives will require spending more on operations at a time when the T is already bracing for a future with budget shortfalls now that federal aid is running out. He said the Legislature and the governor need to step forward quickly with additional funding, even though T General Manager Steve Poftak hasn’t requested more money.

“The general manager reflects what the governor and the governor’s people want him to reflect,” Aloisi said, suggesting Poftak may be constrained in what he can publicly say. 

Rick Dimino, the president and CEO of the business group A Better City, said the “fiscal cliff” the T is facing will only get bigger with the FTA directives. He says the big question now is how lawmakers and the T itself will respond.

“There’s been alarm bells regarding safety going off at the T for some time now,” Dimino said. “The T’s response can’t be passive and it can’t be kicking the can down the road.”

He also said the Department of Public Utilities, which is charged with overseeing the T’s response to safety issues, needs to step up. Dimino couldn’t recall an instance where the DPU has publicly criticized the T’s handling of a safety issue, and suggested the agency should hire independent inspectors to monitor compliance.

“It might be time for the DPU to take its role more seriously,” he said.




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